Saturday, 20 January 2018


Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Writers: Ryan Willinger, Philip De Blasi, Ryan Engle
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra


Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is not having the best of days. After ten years working as a life insurance salesman he shows up at work to find out he's lost his job, which is extremely bad timing as he's trying to work out how to finance his son's college education. Taking his usual train home, his path crosses that of the mysterious Joanna (Farmiga) who offers Michael the chance to make $100,000. Someone on the train doesn't belong, and Michael's knowledge of his fellow commuters - plus his previous job as a cop - should make him the ideal man to carry out the task...

Liam Neeson and Jaume Collet-Serra reunite for a thriller than shares more than a little of its DNA with their previous collaboration in airborne conspiracy flick Non-Stop. There's transport involved, there's a mystery to solve and Neeson plays a guy who faces a race against time to sort out the good guys from the bad. He has a very specific set of skills, skills he has acquired over a long career. Skills that make him a nightmare. He will look for them, he will find them, and he will....hold on, that's Taken.

Having said that, MacCauley does possess a very specific set of skills and having Neeson playing another pleasingly scuffed, scrappy everyman with an almost superhuman ability to step up in a crisis is like plonking down in a favourite, well-worn armchair. It's comforting, you know where you are, you know what to expect. He may get bruised and battered but arse will most definitely be kicked.

Of course, the problem with finding yourself in such recognisable territory is the complete and utter lack of surprises and if you're looking for a movie which constantly confounds your expectations The Commuter really isn't it. Like its featured method of transit, it sticks steadfastly to its tracks for the vast proportion of its running time and even when the plot finally goes off the rails we can even see that coming, entertainingly daffy though it is.

The revelation of the bad guy's identity would be a shock if it wasn't so blindingly obvious who they are from the get-go. It's made all the worse by trying to throw in someone else whose behaviour, dialogue and backstory is such a blatant piece of misdirection that there's even less doubt who's going to show up at the denouement to deliver that crucial "yes, it was me" speech. And you're not even a quarter of the way into it.

Then there's the potential for a complex mystery, muddied even further by a carriageful of characters, each of whom could be a killer or someone in need of protection. Surely all of that wouldn't be jettisoned in favour of a resolution which hinges on just one piece of observation. And what of MacCauley's family, who we're told are in mortal danger for most of the movie and will surely die the moment he doesn't comply with his instructions? Well...

And yet, there's enjoyment to be had from The Commuter. Neeson is as watchable as ever. Vera Farmiga always elevates the proceedings and it's a shame she isn't in the movie more. Andy Nyman is good value as a fellow traveller as is Florence Pugh, continuing the "Brit playing an American" theme. She doesn't get up to any of her Lady Macbeth shenanigans, by the way.

Yes, the sudden lurch into destructive action territory is ludicrous. Yes, the climactic siege and stand-off invites a slew of "but why didn't they...?" questions. Yes, the final scene is annoyingly improbable even if it's kind of satisfying. Yes, if you start picking holes in the plot chances are it will collapse into tiny bits without an especially large amount of effort on your part. Even so, I've a feeling this will fit the bill for moviegoers looking for an undemanding flick and while there's nothing wrong with that this could have been so much more.

In the end, what I can say about The Commuter is that it's just about passable. And that's possibly the most damning criticism of all.

Sunday, 14 January 2018


Starring: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson
Writer: Leigh Whannell
Director: Adam Robitel

When Elise Rainier (Shaye) receives a call from someone in New Mexico regarding the supernatural events going on in his home, she is forced to confront the demons of her past - literally - as the property happens to be the house in which she grew up.

The fourth outing in the Insidious series (which is actually the second one chronologically) is something of a frustrating one in that there are some great moments and ideas which are ultimately sunk in the swamp of a so-so horror outing which has a distinctly ghoulish premise but would generally rather startle you with SUDDEN VERY LOUD NOISES.

This is particularly disappointing because the prologue, set in 1953 and featuring a young Elise dealing with demons both in this world and beyond, delivers on the suspense and the intrigue despite the fact even so early in the piece it can't resist that whole quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG shtick. These first fifteen minutes promise much so it's annoying that the remaining eighty-odd don't measure up.

Again, it's wonderful to Lin Shaye front and centre once more and as usual she's the most interesting and entertaining thing in as Insidious flick. She doesn't get to kick quite as much phantom arse as in the previous outing but she's still a shrewd, able heroine who can show her much younger colleagues a thing or two. Also, as the custodian of the film's single f-bomb, she drops that with relish.

On the subject of her much younger colleagues, Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson return as Specs and Tucker respectively. As before, they're on hand to carry the equipment, watch Elise on video as she wanders around darkened, spirit-filled rooms and to swap awkward banter. Regrettably, the numerous attempts at lightening the proceedings with humour land only sporadically, with one running gag about the attractiveness of Elise's nieces proving more unpleasant and creepy than some of the ghosts on display.

The story switches between the present day and historical action efficiently enough and provides yet more pleasing backstory for Elise but as far as the scares go this seems to be going through the motions for much of its running time and waiting for the next apparition to lunge into the frame eventually begins to grate.

Thankfully, this approach is ditched for the final battle with the big bad although this also doesn't thrill as it should. The evil in this tale - referred to as KeyFace in the imdb character details - is a reasonably menacing presence and there's an excellent sequence where it crawls from the shadows towards a stricken victim. However, there's something oddly unscary about the creature when it's unveiled in all of its detail and the ultimate face-off degenerates into a slightly silly spectral smackdown rather than a battle of wills and wits.

Insidious: The Last Key shows all too often that it's the latest movie in a franchise and although it closes with a decent nod to the first Insidious outing (which is actually the third one chronologically) it brings very little to the poltergeist-shifted table that's new. Lin Shaye deserves better and you do too.

Saturday, 13 January 2018


Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Director: Martin McDonagh

With no headway being made on the investigation of her daughter's murder, Mildred Hayes (McDormand) decides to re-ignite local interest in the case by means of posting messages on three billboards on what was once a main road leading into her home town. This puts her on a confrontational collision course with Ebbing's police department, notably Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) and his infantile, thuggish second-in-command Officer Dixon (Rockwell)...

If you've seen some of Martin McDonagh's previous work then you'll probably know what to expect here: profane, soulful dialogue; pitch-black humour; bursts of brutal, shocking violence; a beating heart underneath it all. These elements are all present and correct in Three Billboards and I'm delighted to say that they work together more brilliantly than ever.

A lot has been made of the performances (don't worry, I'm going to make more of those shortly) but let's not forget that without a script of this quality McDormand, Harrelson et al would not be able to make the lasting impact they do. The writing is beautiful, it's exquisitely judged and paints a group of characters who don't necessarily conform to the normal good/bad guy tropes. These are people who are all capable of doing the right or the very wrong thing. You'll laugh with them, you'll cry with them, you'll fear for them.

Thankfully the superior screenplay is given vivid, memorable humanity by a choice cast. Frances McDormand commands the screen as Mildred, a formidable figure who will not be intimidated and who will stop at nothing to see justice served. She isn't there to be liked and some of her choices will certainly test the audience's loyalty towards her but they stand as particularly fine examples of how the story and its players are all differing shades of grey.

Take Woody Harrelson as the police chief, for instance. Initially it would be natural to assume that he cares little for the case of Angela Hayes as he presides over what would appear to be a brutish, inept bunch of cops. As the film progresses, our expectations of Willoughby are confounded as the tale takes a heartbreaking turn and his actions loom large over the second half of the piece.

Performance of the film for me, somehow eclipsing McDormand's exceptional lead role, comes from Sam Rockwell. With a character arc unlike most others in recent memory, we are introduced to Dixon as a prejudiced, drunken mother's boy with an attitude problem and a penchant for violence but the Hayes case will change him in ways that he would never have seen coming. It's all the more realistic in that he doesn't experience the epiphany and personality switch that would be so unlikely, instead his gradual realisation that he can be a better person (and that others see this too) is more subtle and convincing.

In fact there's not a single weak link when it comes to the players and even the smaller roles are wonderfully accomplished. Lucas Hedges, as Mildred's son Robbie, is excellent as someone having to deal with the trauma of his sister's death and the ramifications of his mother's actions which stir up the townsfolk (and hence his high-school classmates). Peter Dinklage scores as sympathetic car dealer James, John Hawkes is deeply unnerving as Mildred's abusive ex-husband and Darrell Britt-Gibson impresses as billboard poster Jerome.

It's very early in the year to be predicting what will be in my Top Ten for 2018 but Three Billboards is certainly a strong contender to be there come December. Hilarious, heartfelt, horrific - often within the same scene - it's a great way to start the year.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018


Starring: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi
Writer: Scott Cooper (from a manuscript by Donald E. Stewart)
Director: Scott Cooper

In the 1890s grizzled, veteran Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Bale) is given an assignment to escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi) back to his homelands in Montana. The two men have previously lost friends at the hands of each other in many bloody battles but that chequered history could turn out to be the least of their problems in a journey fraught with danger, which is further complicated when their travelling party encounters a widow (Pike) in the wilderness...

If you saw the trailer for Hostiles and thought it was an action movie let me stop you right there, pardner. Yes, there is action, but those sequences are few and far between. This is a film about conflict but the verbal and the internal varieties are given as much, if not more, precedence than the scalpings and the flying bullets.

Oh yes, if you were expecting line 'em up, shoot 'em down sequences then let me stop you right there, pardner - if you hadn't already stopped from when I said you should stop right there the previous time. The bursts of violence here are grim, up close, personal, down and dirty affairs in which the you feel the pain of its victims. Flashy, glamorous gunfights are not the order of the day.

Hostiles takes its time in putting its characters through the wringer and its slow pace may mean that some won't stay the course, especially when it's piling on the misery (which it does almost relentlessly). However, for those willing to stick with it there are rewards to be found, mostly in the excellent performances.

Bale is never less than convincing as Blocker, worn down by a career drenched with the blood of others and wondering if he's truly beyond salvation. Studi is terrific, bringing an air of quiet authority and wisdom but also weighed down by the violence of his past. Then there's Pike, whose portrayal of grief is so strong that it's almost unbearable to watch in places.

The script doesn't quite fulfil its promise, its meditations on who exactly the bad guys are being a touch heavy-handed in places - tagline: We are all hostiles - and the denouement can't resist trowelling on even more bleakness, double-underlining a point that had already been made earlier. It then gives way to a final scene which arguably ties things up somewhat too neatly but, given what's gone before, at least sends you out of the cinema clinging to some form of hope.

A modern Western which utilises the classic template of that genre while trying to portray that period of history from a different viewpoint, Hostiles doesn't quite get the balance right and it isn't the revisionist masterpiece it so diligently strives to be. That doesn't stop it from being a damn good drama though and it's well worth watching for the work of its exemplary cast.